A Chilliwack church turns ‘good intentions and some land’ into homes

'We’re not in the development business at all. We just had good intentions and some land.'

By Grace Kennedy | September 22, 2021 |10:45 am

This story appeared in the Sept. 22 edition of the Fraser Valley Current daily newsletter. Subscribe below for every story delivered to your inbox first thing in the morning.

The exterior of the Chilliwack United Church on Spadina Avenue is sturdy, strong. Stained-glass windows loom high over the entryway to the spiritual home for parishioners, as they have done for 68 years. But the church isn’t as sturdy as it looks.

Dwindling funds left the future of the building uncertain, and Debora Soutar with the job of figuring out what could be done. Soutar is the chair of the church’s Futures Team, tasked several years ago with figuring out the future of the church. At that time, Soutar had been chair of the church’s council, and saw their financial situation was, in her words, “not good.”

“We could see that even with no increase in expenses, and no reduction of income, that the end was in sight,” she said. The congregation had two options: to wait and do nothing, or to do something. They chose the latter.

What that something would look like was initially unclear, Soutar said. Last year, the church joined with two other Chilliwack-based United Churches to form the new Cheam View United Church in 2020. At the same time, members were looking at the possibility of redeveloping the church property—but not into market housing or a commercial space.

“Our goal is for it to be an asset to the community,” Soutar said. “Because right now that space—in spite of its history and its historic architecture and, frankly, charm—it’s a bit of a blight on the landscape. It’s not contributing to the community as a whole right now.”

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The church appears to have found the solution: it has partnered with Mamele’awt Qweesome Housing Society (MQHS) to turn its property into a 74-unit apartment building. The building will be a mixed-income community, with half of the units set aside for households with incomes up to $64,000, a third of the units for incomes up to $74,000, and the remaining units fully subsidized for people with very low incomes. MQHS will manage the property, which is being funded by BC Housing.

The church had initially considered applying to BC Housing on its own, but Soutar says she and her colleagues realized it was not a strong candidate. “We have no experience. We’re not in the development business at all,” she said. “We just had good intentions and some land.”

Soutar said the people in the church’s congregation are “very caring,” but have accepted their own limits. In the winter of 2017, they set up a warming centre at the site to help those without homes. But that ended up backfiring, Soutar said: “It didn’t go well for us and all the people who needed the shelter.” When the church began to look at redeveloping, it was an opportunity to right some of those challenges.

“We said, ‘Okay, what about if we prevent homelessness by providing affordable housing?’” Soutar said. “And that was something we thought we could do. And it turns out, that is something we can do.”

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The building designs are currently in the process of being finalized, Soutar said, but the basic structure is there. The apartment building will look similar to MQHS’s Waterstone development on Yale Road, and will have space on the main floor for the church’s minister’s office, commercial kitchen, and meeting space. (Once BC Housing gives final approval to the project, MQHS will take over the ownership of the property, although Cheam View United will be partners in the project.)

The church building, despite looking as historic as the original United Church located just down the road (now the Goldsmith Shoppe), was actually built in 1953. And it will be demolished completely with the new development. Soutar said she had hoped they could have removed the “ugly bits” of the building—the additions necessitated by the church’s rapid growth in the 1960s—and kept the rest, but it simply wasn’t possible.

“We dare to dream that somebody would want to save the original building and perhaps move it, and we would support that,” Soutar said. “So over the next year, we are keeping our eyes and ears open for that possibility. Churches have been moved before.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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